Whoa. If David Hayman’s recent “King Lear” was a bit out there, this is somewhere the far side of Azerbaijan.
I love “Macbeth”. It is probably my favourite play of all time, and I have some extraordinarily odd views on it that I may share in the future that revolve around me wanting to marry Lady Macbeth. As such, productions almost always disappoint, and I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time; one of the most shockingly bad starred Mark McManus. Selling bucketloads of tickets on the back of his “Taggart” starring role, he was obviously a TV actor totally out of his depth on stage, to the extent that, at one point, he was delivering his “vaulting ambition” soliloquy from behind his cloak, a lá Dick Dastardly. One of the best I’ve ever seen was Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in London a few years back, which was filmed and broadcast on BBC a couple of Christmases ago; it had some real vivacity about it, Stewart was terrific and the director Rupert Goold did something with the “hold enough” line that totally transformed the play. Great stuff – but still a nagging feeling I hadn’t yet seen my perfect “Macbeth”.
This isn’t it either, but then again it isn’t really “Macbeth”; what it is is a stunning re-imagining of it and an outstandingly impressive performance by Alan Cumming. Here, Macbeth is locked up in an asylum, reliving the horror of his rise and fall day after day, all the characters of the tragedy part of his interior landscape. Cumming’s performance is a tremendous feat of memory if nothing else – he must recite 2/3 of the text – and he differentiates between the characters extraordinarily well, despite, on a couple of occasions, it slipping into caricature, such as Duncan’s mangled-vowelled English aristocrat. There are moments of real insight and brilliance – of course the “if it t’were done” scene should end in steamy, angry sex, “bring forth men-children only” taking on a whole new aspect as the two characters played by one actor writhe on the bed. I also liked the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Cumming’s Lady Macbeth luxuriating in a bath with a gin and tonic to give it a lightness I think is totally appropriate; and Macduff’s reaction to the slaughter of his wife and children should be a heart-stopping moment, and Cumming pretty much nails it.
What I especially liked are the moments of real vulnerability which Cumming does so, so well. Tearing himself apart after Duncan’s murder, a silent doctor and orderly come in to pacify him and put him ever so gently to bed, a scene echoed several times through the play. Thus, there is a real sense of a mind in utter agony, too fragile to cope with the enormity of what has been done, what has been lost and won.
The staging is fantastic too. Particularly effective are the three video screens which ostensibly show the CCTV security footage of Macbeth’s room / cell. However, they bring Cumming’s three witches eerily to life. In addition, they are used for spooky moments of dissassociation, such as when Banquo’s ghost appears on stage but is absent from the footage, or when the sleeping Cumming, alone on stage, is watched by a sinister suited figure on-screen. Credit also has to go to a brilliant ambient soundtrack, including a beautiful solo cello.
There are a couple of oddities. That silent doctor and orderly are a great conceit at the beginning, mouthing unheard diagnoses beneath the discordant noise that fills Macbeth’s head. I wondered, therefore, what the purpose of having them interact with Macbeth’s world in the final Act was: they take on parts, discuss Lady Macbeth, speak with Macbeth. I have to say, I didn’t understand the need for that change.
But, another clear triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland. And yet – it isn’t Macbeth, is it? It does raise all sorts of existential discussion points my pal Ian and I mulled over in the pub afterwards, and it all comes down to the question of just who the guy on stage really is. It is Macbeth? In that case, the narrative has been changed, and Macbeth is not killed at the end. But if it’s not, then who is he? Are we actually watching the psycho-drama of a bloke with a Napoleon complex? If he really believes he is Macbeth, and has his words and memories, is he therefore Macbeth? What we are left with is the possibility that we are seeing a “Shutter Island” Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m completely okay with that.
But it doesn’t matter, because once again it’s got me thinking, and thinking hard, and that’s never a bad thing.
My second King Lear in just over a year, after 2011’s fantastic Derek Jacobi version. That was a very traditional take, all pagan standing stones and a venerable king thrown on the mercy of Dark Age gods. This is something else.
It’s a sign of Hayman’s ambition as an actor that he felt ready to tackle a part most others shy away from until they are in their 70s. Hayman is 64, ten years younger than Jacobi, and was therefore never going to be able to play Lear as the petulant old man on the verge of dodderiness. In keeping with Hayman’s oeuvre, this is a much more dangerous beast. And that, I think, is the problem I have with this.
It’s a memorable production, a way of doing the play I’ve never seen before. That’s the thing about Shakespeare: with stage directions that consist of “a heath” or “a tempest”, you can do much anything you want with it. That has validated some absolute shite over the years that usually entails a company digging around in its military uniform box to come up with a mish-mash of all sorts of periods; the Citz’ “Macbeth” of a couple of decades ago which was set in a post-apocalyptic world complete with enormous wind machines blowing actors across the stage and a Lady Macbeth who ate Duncan’s heart springs to mind. I’ve never seen Lear tackled this way, though, so off the straight and narrow. Generally, it works, largely because of Hayman, and, though I’m not quite sure I loved it, I certainly applaud its verve and intelligence.
The problem is that Lear scares me. This is a king who is a Glasgow gangster, a hard-drinking, fur-wearing, sexually abusive ned who has been elevated to the crown because he is the badass of the country. His treatment of Goneril (a voluptuous Kathryn Howden) is actually completely repellent, and the revelation of his hundred knights as the drunkenly obnoxious, arrogant squad of utter yobs that would make you walk out of any pub they happened to be in (a decision, I feel, is a directorial error), means that, quite frankly, I actually have no sympathy for this guy. His rantings against his daughters that, in any other production, are the tetchy ravings of a foolish old man 0n the verge of senility are here the explicit, chilly threats of a psychopath. As such, I don’t care if he’s murdered by exposure on the heath or shot up the arse in a car outside an east end pub. And what that does is it legitimises Regan’s and Goneril’s complaints against him and makes you wonder just what sexual abuse he has delivered on Cordelia that makes her so in thrall of him and what dark contracts he has made with Kent to earn his loyalty.
But there are big plusses. Hayman is always fantastic and does what he does impeccably. There are some great moments, and he is capable of making himself appear so much less than he is as madness descends; I have to say, though, I find his fractured, nasal delivery of many of those lines of madness curiously old-fashioned. Paul Higgins as Kent is solid and generally convincing (though, again, his onstage suicide at the end is, I think, a mistake, pulling attention away from the death of Lear). I liked Ewan Donald as Edgar (a great part for any actor) and Kieran Hill, while unconvincing as Edmund, is terrific as Poor Tom.
Shauna Macdonald as Regan is red hot sexy in a way that becomes outrageously vampish, the inappropriate fondlings of a child who has experienced crossed boundaries that befits the rampant sexuality of the whole production, and her death performance is something else. As well as oodles of sex, there’s also buckets of blood, arterial spray soaking the stage; the blinding scene is torture porn aesthetic, Regan taking out Gloucester’s second eye with the heel of her stiletto shoe. Lastly, the final image of Lear piled on top of all his dead daughters and wheeled out on a hospital bed is inspired: just what has this total bastard done to these girls to bring the whole family to this? I’d never noticed before, but there is no mention of a mother in King Lear. Where is his Queen? And how did those girls replace her in this chilling man’s life?
I don’t quite warm to Lynn Kennedy as Cordelia, feeling she lacks the necessary gravitas to stand up to her father and sisters, but it was a stroke of genius to have her pregnant in the final act. It occurred to me a full day after seeing the play. Lear demands that he spend one month with Reagan and Goneril each. The crisis comes before even a month has passed, since he has not had time to visit Reagan for the first time. Given that France accepts Cordelia after Burgundy rejects her, and has therefore had only a few weeks with her, how then does she appear heavily pregnant? Who is the father? If it can’t be France (who we do not see again) – then who?
I’ve never read the play like this before. Is it a sexual abuser’s tale? Is this a take on Shakespeare in the mould of Tim Roth’s “The War Zone”?
This version of the play has disquieted me, and dammit that’s a good thing. I’m not sure, though, if I can forgive it for not letting me weep at the awakening scene, or when Lear carries his hanged daughter onstage (here, he drags her like some piece of meat). I’m not sure I want to notice just how self-centred all Lear’s madness is, how possessive he is of what he is to and has had with his daughters. But, hell, do you know, maybe Hayman and artistic director Dominic Hill are just showing me what’s in the text.
And that is undoubtedly a good thing. Shakespeare would surely have wanted that: I’m just not sure I do.
ps By the way, I have to say thanks to my lovely PGDE English class, who took me along on their night out. In twelve years of working with student teachers, this is the first time that’s happened; sweeties every one, especially fetchingly floppy-haired Scott who organised it all. Thanks, guys, I had a lovely time.
Oh My Gods! Well, it is a distinctly pagan play, so the plural is necessary. But I’m just in the door, quarter past midnight, wired from just having seen the best Shakespeare I have ever seen. No lies. Legendary.
Though its greatness has always been screamingly obvious, Lear is a play I’ve never quite got in a lot of ways – all that dissembling and madness, real or feigned, all that downright stupid gullibility about people’s motives. I’ve seen three or four versions (including Anthony Quayle yonks ago), and it’s never quite gelled for me. I got it tonight though, thanks to the beauty of the performances: at its core, a simple tale is told of how age and dementia saps our parents of everything they once were, and how we cope with it in different ways. In true Shakespearean fashion, though, what leeches away from a pompous old man is not only his sanity but his kingship too.
Where to begin. The set is incredibly sparse; whitewashed boards underfoot, right, left, back, with one single prop the chair brought on for Lear to be wrapped up in, asleep after his trials in the storm, waiting to be woken so gently, so beautifully, by his lost daughter. The bleakness of the set creates different effects: first, it’s framed like a puppet theatre, perfectly appropriate given the horrible game the gods play with the characters; secondly, the drabness of the costume starkly contrasting with the set makes it seem like an animated film at times; and lastly, the bleached walls create the sense of pagan granite, as if the whole tragedy plays out in the shadow of the gods’ standing stones.
It is also brilliantly and viscerally realised, Gloucester’s eyeballs being stamped on and kicked by a gleeful Cornwall, his bloody sockets gaping far too convincingly at the audience. And, of course, that final moment when Lear carries Cordelia onstage, howling at the moon – a scene which has failed to move me in every previous production I’ve been to – had me tearing up. It was an exhausting experience.
The performances are uniformly excellent. I particularly liked Alec Newman’s Edmund, all cocky nastiness and wide boy opportunism, and Paul Jesson (who I saw do an excellent Willie Loman in Edinburgh a few years back) as an erudite, compassionate and ultimately convincing Gloucester. Gina McKee is predictably perfect as Goneril, including a lovely moment when she grabs Albany by the balls and threatens to rip them off to assert herself as the driving force in the marriage.
But Lear is about who plays Lear. Derek Jacobi is, of course, a “national treasure”, which means he’s done some fantastic stuff for the canon (who doesn’t know “I, Claudius”) and some pretty dire things to pay the electric bill (Scrooge in that bloody awful Sony Christmas ad?). My pals and I were all a wee bit doubtful about whether he could carry it off – doubts he expressed himself – but we’d read glowing reviews so thought it would be okay.
Okay? He was monumental. Commanding and spry at the beginning, full of petulance and whim and spite, the stripping of his outer layers reveals a fascinatingly vulnerable old man, desperately hanging on to values that are cruelly out of date in the world of his acquisitional elder daughters. I really did believe the madness, twittering and capering about the stage like an unruly patient in an old folks’ home. And that scene of awakening: god, it was perfectly judged, the sleepiness rising off him like mist on the moors, that “where am I?” moment we have all experienced magnified a millionfold. I have seen some magnificent performances on stage – Tim Piggott Smith as Salieri in “Amadeus” always springs to mind – and this was up there with them, if not way out in front. It was one of those moments that defines a career: I hope his Lear is always mentioned in the same breath as any of the “greats”.
Unforgettable and absolutely perfect theatre.